So it’s all over for another year.
Another Bank Holiday weekend, another annual pilgrimage to London, and another five days of blood, guts, gore, zombies, beer and the best atmosphere you’ll find anywhere. The dust is settling on another Horror Channel FrightFest (technically the first bearing the name of the new sponsor), and it brought with it its usual mixed bag of films. There were highs, lows, disappointments, surprises and some of the year’s most exciting releases. With that, let’s take a look at the best and worst of another busy year at “the Woodstock of Gore”.
Before we get to the good stuff, let’s take a look at the films that, for SSH at least, missed the mark over the weekend. Firstly and most inescapably was Cell, an absolutely punishingly amateurish Stephen King adaptation that squanders its formidable star power with almost military precision. Paranormal Activity 2 director Tod Williams helms this tale of a mysterious cellphone signal that turns people into zombies, where a distinctly tired-looking John Cusack attempts to reunite with his son as his city becomes infested with this tech-savvy horde of the undead, all of whom move with the mannerisms and gait of a heavily-medicated, straitjacketed group of mental patients navigating a Tesco queue. Samuel L Jackson and Orphan‘s Isbelle Fuhrmann also lend their names (if not their brains) to this spectacularly misguided affair, which steers its way through a shopworn post-apocalyptic setting to an ending that abandons all illusions of credibility. A near-unqualified disaster.
A film more unassuming in its shortcomings was The Chamber, a lean and well-acted submarine drama that is in possession of all the component parts necessary to make a genuinely suspenseful thriller, but somehow still comes off feeling like it would be more at home in a 10pm weeknight slot on ITV4. Force Majeure‘s Johannes Kuhnke and Casualty‘s Charlotte Salt are the front two in this one, which takes place almost entirely in a tiny, embattled submarine. Solid perfomances and an impactful score from Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield help this one along, but with a first two acts almost bafflingly bogged down in impenetrable nautical jargon, The Chamber never begins to succeed at wrenching any real gravitas from its claustrophobic premise.
Downhill, however, suffers from an entirely different affliction. Equal parts Eden Lake-style hunt-and-chase survivalism, infection horror and occult histrionics, what begins as a curious mish-mash of genres soon degenerates into a hopeless identity crisis, and any real momentum built up during the film’s more successful first half (which still had its share of shakey dialogue and questionable character motivations) has well and truly evaporated by the time the film takes its final spin of the sub-genre Wheel of Fortune at the hour mark.
But enough negativity, let’s get to the good stuff.
Honourable mention: Knucklebones
While there were, without question, better films on display at the festival than Mitch Wilson’s Knucklebones, very few played quite so well with the festival audience. Destined to find a lifespan at least as the subject of VOD viewing parties the world over, this tale of a group of teenagers who summon a murderous figure known as Knucklebones (more of a Candyman-type figure than a demon, per se) is loaded with spectacular kills and endlessly quotable one-liners. It’s a train you need to commit to getting on, but once you do, Knucklebones is a brilliantly entertaining ride.
And now, to our top five…
5. Director’s Cut
This year’s FrightFest saw a couple of films try their hand at the notoriously hit-and-miss meta-horror sub genre (see also the crowd-pleasing Found Footage 3D), and the most successful of those was Director’s Cut. Presented in the form of a director’s commentary of the dark, Fincher-esque film-within-a-film Knocked Off, it becomes apparent that the crowdfunded production has, somewhere along the line, been overthrown by Herbert Blount (Penn Jillette), an eccentric, talentless loner who is obsessed with the film’s star (a game Missi Pyle). Having purchased the “Executive Producer Credit” perk from the Indiegogo campaign, his attempt to re-cut the film – including making corrections with MS Paint and Photoshop and shabbily splicing himself into scenes – spawns genuine hilarity from the off. As his actions get increasingly erratic as the film nears its end, Director’s Cut goes absolutely stratospheric, and this proved a real surprise hit.
4. Under The Shadow
A late addition to the festival’s final day, Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow provided FrightFest with an understated gem, and one that’s destined for critical acclaim when its wider release comes later in the year. Setting its tale of the supernatural against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, this combines the best elements of the understated drama of countryman Asghar Fahradi with a Babadook-style ghost story sensibility.
3. Beyond The Gates
Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates was one of the most talked about films going into the festival, and it didn’t disappoint. Two brothers find a mysterious VHS boardgame while going through their late father’s belongings, and as they play through the game (hosted by none other than ReAnimator star and FrightFest 2015 Guest of Honour Barbara Crampton), it becomes apparent that it will present them with the opportunity to save their father’s soul. Boasting a host of impressive kills and one of the festival’s finest performances from Jesse Merlin as eccentric shopkeeper Elric, this is a bizarre fusion of mumblecore comedy drama and B-movie kills that wrong foots your expectations every step of the way. Fiercely original and explosively entertaining.
2. Benavidez’s Case
Under-seen and under-rated at this year’s festival was Laura Casabe’s Benavidez’s Case, a psychological mind-bender from Argentina that plays like a darker spin on Fermat’s Room. The title character, a struggling artist burdened with living in the shadow of his more successful father, takes refuge at the home of his psychiatrist, only to be subjected to a revolutionary “treatment” that sees him move through a series of rooms digitally manipulated to force him to confront dark truths about himself. The premise itself is refreshing and original, but an array of strong performances, a sharp script and a chilingly theatrical ending truly make this one to remember. A dazzingly inventive assault on the notion of the tortured artist.
1. Train to Busan
Hurtling to the top of 90% of fans’ top ten list for this year, though, was Train to Busan, the film of the festival, an overdue game-changer for the zombie subgenre and the best film of 2016. Telling the story of a man’s attempts to get his young daughter to her mother’s house as a zombie outbreak rips through the train they’re travelling on, Sang-ho Yeon’s film is genuinely terrifying, and it succeeds in this way for one simple reason: its willingness to truly and emphatically invest in its characters. The reason the film’s emotionally-charged final third resonates on an emotional level as well as at a bombastically scary surface reading is because you truly care for the fates of the people involved. You’ll hardly be able to look by the time Train to Busan reaches its wrenching finale – this is truly one for the ages.